By Tim Secomb
The French composer Hector Berlioz was very influential in the development of the modern orchestra, particularly through his Treatise on Instrumentation, and also in the development of musical Romanticism. Like many other composers, Berlioz was inspired by Goethe’s dramatic poem Faust. His La damnation de Faust (The Damnation of Faust) is a work for four solo voices, full seven-part chorus, large children’s chorus and orchestra. It is a musical work that defies easy categorization and is difficult to stage, so that its fame has come mainly through concert performances. Berlioz had previously made an arrangement of the Rákóczy March, the unofficial Hungarian national anthem. When this proved a great success at a performance in Pest, Hungary, Berlioz decided to place the opening of his Faust story in Hungary and incorporated the Rákóczy March into the score.
The piano concerto was one of Mozart‘s favorite forms, and he wrote more than twenty of them, often performing them himself. He first performed the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C in a concert he organized in Vienna, in March, 1785. To protect himself from pirate music publishers, Mozart performed from a cryptic manuscript, with just the bass line and a few passages sketched in. The first movement is majestic, even military in style, with trumpets and timpani. The march-like opening theme is stated in an orchestral introduction, then the piano enters, soon moving to a wonderful second theme. In the sublime slow movement, extended song-like themes float over a gently pulsing accompaniment. This movement surged in popularity some years ago when it was used in the movie Elvira Madigan. The brilliant last movement, full of surprises and jokes, evokes the atmosphere of Mozart’s comic operas.
English composer and teacher Gustav Holst was born into a family that included several generations of musicians. As a child, he learned piano, violin and trombone, and he started composing when he was about 12. Holst became fascinated by astrology in 1913, and a friend suggested to him that he write a piece based on astrological concepts. The result was The Planets, a seven-movement orchestral suite. Each movement is named after a planet of the solar system and is intended to convey ideas and emotions associated with the astrological influence of the planets on the psyche, not the Roman deities after whom the planets are named. When composing The Planets, Holst initially scored the work for piano duet, except for Neptune, which was scored for organ. He then scored the suite for a large orchestra, in which form it became enormously popular. His orchestration was very imaginative and colorful, showing the influence of such composers as Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Its novel sonorities helped make the work an immediate success with audiences. Although The Planets remains Holst’s most popular work, the composer himself did not consider it among his best creations and later complained that its popularity had surpassed his other works. He was, however, partial to his own favorite movement, Saturn.